Air Pollution: Exactly what are we breathing?

by Theresa Peluso

pollutionTake a deep breath. Then think about what you’ve just inhaled. The air now in your lungs has circulated the Earth many times, mostly from west to east in the northern hemisphere. Canada shares this half of the planet with the world’s most polluted cities, 10 of which are found in India, 3 in Pakistan, 1 in Iran and 1 in Qatar (International Political Economy Zone website, 2014: Although China isn’t listed, in its capital city, Beijing, many residents wear face masks when outside, and private schools have built huge domes containing filtered air for the children to play in. It makes you wonder how many other significantly polluted cities there are when Beijing doesn’t even make the IPEZ top-10 list. And, of course, Ontario also receives a significant amount of U.S. produced air pollution, depending on the wind direction.

Here in Mississippi Mills, we have relatively little traffic, no heavy industry, and we have many acres of trees to absorb the pollutants in the air. We are also thousands of kilometres away from those polluted Asian cities. But beluga whales in the Arctic, also thousands of kilometres away, have been found to contain (following an autopsy) high levels of pesticides such as DDT, chlordane and toxaphene. Evidence such as this has led geoscientists at Texas A&M University to conclude that wind-borne pollutants may travel thousands of miles ( Clearly, air pollution is a problem we all need to care about.

In Great Britain, fumes from diesel engines are considered by air pollution health experts to be responsible for thousands of premature deaths. According to Frank Kelly, professor of environmental health at King’s College, London: “With government figures for 2008 showing 29,000 people dying prematurely from air pollution each year, diesel fuel burned in vehicles could be responsible for around one in four of all air pollution deaths.”


Fortunately for Canadians, most passenger vehicles run on gasoline, but if you’ve driven for any length of time behind a large truck or bus, your body soon tells you in no uncertain terms that it’s unhealthy. People operating heavy machinery (more than 60% of the farm machinery used in Canada operates on diesel) need to minimize their exposure to these fumes. Diesel fumes aren’t the only air pollutant; other sources are pesticides, insecticides and fertilizers used in agricultural activities, exhaust from factories, and dust and chemicals from mining operations. Remember, too, that not only does air pollution have an impact on humans — plants and animals, including the above-mentioned belugas, are also affected.

Now consider a study published in 1998 titled “Taking Our Breath Away: the Health Effects of Air Pollution and Climate Change” by Dr. John Last, Dr. Konia Trouton, and Dr. David Pengelly. (Refer to the link:

There are three main villains in this piece: The first villain is nitrogen oxides (NOx), a group of highly reactive gases, of which nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is a component. NO2 can irritate the lungs and lower resistance to respiratory infection. It chemically transforms into nitric acid and, when deposited, contributes to lake acidification. This nitric acid can corrode metals, fade fabrics and degrade rubber. It can also damage trees and crops, resulting in substantial losses.

The second villain, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), is the name given to substances that contain carbon and that evaporate or “off-gas” at room temperature. Some examples of VOCs include benzene, methylene chloride, hexane, toluene, trichloroethane, styrene, heptane, and perchloroethylene. Although some VOCs occur naturally and are harmless, others, especially man-made VOCs, have compounding long-term health effects. Exposure to VOCs is linked to respiratory, allergic, or immune effects in children; eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches; nausea; and damage to the liver, kidney, and central nervous system.

Last but not least, villain three, is particulate matter (PM), microscopic solid or liquid matter suspended in the Earth’s atmosphere. PM ranges from respirable (10 micrometres or less) to fine (2.5 micrometres or less), to ultrafine, and finally, soot. Particulates are the deadliest form of air pollution because they can penetrate deep into the lungs and blood stream unfiltered, causing permanent DNA mutations, heart attacks, and premature death.

Now for the plot summary of “Taking Our Breath Away”:

.In spite of efforts to implement pollution reduction technology in Canada,

there is not expected to be any improvement in total NOx and VOC emissions, the components of smog which create ground level ozone, by 2010. NOx emissions are projected to remain constant at 2 million tonnes, while VOC emissions will increase from 2.5 million tonnes in 1990 to 3 million tonnes in 2010. There are very few projections available for particulates in Canada; however, forecasts for the Vancouver region indicate that, without significant intervention, PM2.5 emissions will increase by 65 per cent and PM10 emissions will increase by 57 per cent during the next 25 years. Due to the make-up of the inventory sources, similar results may be derived for other large urban areas in Canada. (Note: It would be interesting to know what percentage of the pollution in Vancouver measured in this study originates in east Asia.)

As noted earlier, in addition to more air pollution resulting from increased

use of fossil fuels, climate change itself will facilitate the formation of secondary air pollutants, notably O3 (ozone) and organic aerosols formed from evaporated hydrocarbons (VOCs). The illness and death associated with these compounds will continue to be significant since areas in Canada with the largest air pollution problems are also the most populous. O3 and particulate levels are currently highest in the Windsor-Quebec corridor, the Lower Fraser Valley, and several parts of the Atlantic Provinces such as St. John, New Brunswick, and Halifax.

Air pollution has a significant impact on the health of Canadians. The Canadian government estimates that up to 16,000 premature deaths per year

are associated with ambient air pollution in Canada. Specific regional studies aimed at quantifying the benefits of reductions in air pollution provide a further indication of the scope of health effects arising from increased fossil fuel use. In the 1996 Smog Plan for Ontario, the Ontario Ministry of Energy and Environment estimated that NOx would increase to 933,000 tonnes and VOCs would increase to 1.2 million tonnes by 2015. By reducing these emissions by 45 per cent, approximately 173 premature deaths would be avoided every year. Hospital admissions, adult chronic bronchitis and symptom days would be even more dramatically affected…Further studies looking at global mortality trends indicate that by 2020, 700,000 premature deaths a year could be prevented as a result of decreased air pollution if climate change policies were implemented. Of these, 140,000 would be in developed nations, and 563,000 would be in the developing nations. (end of quote)

Although air pollution has been a problem since the start of the Industrial Revolution, with population growth, increased consumption, and the pressure to maximize productivity, it has mushroomed to dangerous levels. Clearly, there’s no way we would or could ever return to the age of the horse and buggy, but we could easily cut down on the outdoor air pollution we’re creating by minimizing the use of fuel-burning vehicles and equipment, finding alternatives to carbon-based fuels, and using energy intelligently. Research is ongoing to reduce pollution levels in products and processes, but it’s not a panacea.

How about indoor air quality? Consider for a moment how much time we spend indoors – at work or school, in our bedrooms at night, and much of the time in between. Now consider all the products we use for cleaning ourselves, our clothes, and our home, and for house maintenance and improvements. Many of these products also pollute the air. To find out how scary some products are, check out this link to the PubMed Central website (supported by the U.S. National Center for Biotechnology Information) about indoor air quality: Titled “Indoor Air Quality: Scented Products Emit a Bouquet of VOCs”, author Carol Potera describes a test of 25 air fresheners, laundry detergents, fabric softeners, dryer sheets, disinfectants, dish detergents, all-purpose cleaners, soaps, hand sanitizers, lotions, deodorants, and shampoos, that was carried out by Anne Steinemann, professor of civil and environmental engineering and public affairs at the University of Washington, Seattle.

The test results showed that these products emitted more than 100 VOCs, including some listed as toxic or hazardous by U.S. laws. Products advertised as “green”, “natural”, or “organic” emitted as many harmful chemicals as regular products. Here is one direct quote from the article:

A single fragrance in a product can contain a mixture of hundreds of chemicals, some of which (e.g., limonene, a citrus scent) react with ozone in ambient air to form dangerous secondary pollutants, including formaldehyde. The researchers detected 133 different VOCs. Most commonly detected were limonene, α- and β-pinene (pine scents), and ethanol and acetone (often used as carriers for fragrance chemicals) (Jan. 2011)

Another researcher quoted in this article, Claudia Miller, allergist and immunologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, explains that “products intended to keep homes smelling fresh can set people up for a lifetime of chemically induced illness, and repeated exposure to small amounts of household chemicals can trigger symptoms to previously tolerated chemicals.”

Steinemann recommends that manufacturers be required to label consumer products with ALL ingredients, including the fragrance components. Meanwhile we consumers can do our part by keeping in mind that the best smell is no smell, and using environmentally-friendly cleaning products such as vinegar and baking soda – which, by the way, are considerably cheaper than all the special soaps, detergents and powders lining the store shelves.

By virtue of being consumers, directly or indirectly, we share the blame for this air pollution. Most of us are unwilling to relinquish the perks of first-world living, but there is still much we can do to reduce our contribution to air pollution, while living a reasonably comfortable lifestyle. The air encircling the Earth is shared by all living entities. Let’s keep thinking about the air we breathe, and do what we can to keep it as pure as possible.